Chief Hymn for the Feast of the Epiphany, selected also as our CLC seasonal hymn for Epiphanytide, AD 2022. During the Epiphany season, the Church recounts the glorious appearances and manifestations of her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The season is thus often known as the season of light, recalling Jesus as the light of the world, which the darkness has not overcome (John 1:4-5, 8:12).
Author and Composer: The Rev. Dr. Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608)1 was born in Mengeringhausen, about 29 miles west of Kassel, Germany. His father was a Lutheran Pastor who had lost his position at his first congregation for refusing to accept the 1548 Augsburg Interim;2 through the intervention of the Count of Waldeck,3 he received a Pastoral call to the congregation in the town. Philipp, the third child of eight, was exceptionally bright. He was initially home-schooled by his father, but when plague broke out in Mengeringhausen, he was sent to a succession of schools in various locations. Of note, during his time in Dortmund (1571-1572), Nicolai studied under Friedrich Beurhaus (1536-1609), assistant rector of the school there, also a renowned music theorist and kantor. Additionally, at Mühlhausen immediately afterward (1572), he studied under the hymn writer Ludwig Helmbold (1532-1598; c.f. LSB 713, 865), and the music composer Joachim a Burck (1546-1610). During his teenage years, Nicolai began writing theological poetry in Latin, including one in which every line began with the letter, “c”, and another in which every line began with the letter, “p.” With financial help from the Count of Waldeck, supplemented by earnings from his poetry, he went on to study theology first at Erfurt, then Wittenberg, graduating in 1579. Of note, Nicolai arrived at Wittenberg in the wake of the removal of the “crypto-Calvinists” (hidden Calvinists) from the faculty at Wittenberg, and the restoration of the Lutheran teaching on the Lord’s Supper. Taught by emboldened professors, he was thus well-equipped to teach and confess our Lord’s Real Presence in, with and under the elements, and to derive and impart great comfort from that reality.
Following graduation, Nicolai initially served as assistant to his father at Mengeringhausen. In 1583, he received a call to the congregation in Herdecke, Westphalia, at which his father had initially served. Like his father, he was met with opposition from many who resisted the Reformation and remained inclined toward Roman Catholicism. When Spanish troops invaded the town in 1586 as part of the wider Cologne War,4 Nicolai was forced to leave his position as Roman Catholic practice was solidified in the congregation. Of note, during his time at Herdecke, Nicolai penned his first major theological work, a treatise against Calvinism. After Herdecke, Nicolai served an underground congregation of Lutherans in Cologne, before returning to Waldeck in 1587 to serve the congregation in Niederwildungen, followed in 1588 by a move to the congregation in Altwildungen. Of note, in Altwildungen, Nicolai also served as court-preacher for the Countess of Waldeck Margarethe von Gleichen (1556-1619) and tutor for her pious and intellectually gifted son Count Wilhelm Ernst (1584-1598). During his years at Altwildungen, Nicolai faced opposition for his defense of the Formula of Concord (FC), even closing the Table of the Lord to a county official for his Reformed view of the Sacrament, namely his denial of the Real Presence of Christ in the Supper. For this, he faced the displeasure of the princes, and in 1590 was refused a doctorate in theology from the University of Marburg, although he had completed all of the requirements for the degree.5 He was further threatened with removal from his office and imprisonment, and for a brief time in 1592 was prohibited from preaching. Unfazed, Nicolai persisted, and in 1593, the Waldeck clergy accepted the FC. In 1594, he was finally granted a doctorate, by his alma mater the University of Wittenberg.
In October 1596, Nicolai accepted a pastoral call back to Westphalia, to St. Catharine’s Church in Unna. Of note, the call was very actively resisted by the Reformed members of the community, but was supported by the Roman Catholic delegates on the Ducal Council that finally approved the call. At Unna, Nicolai continued writing in defense of the FC, against the Reformed. Then, from July 1597 to January 1598, a devastating plague hit the town, killing about 1400 of his parishioners; during the month of July, Nicolai was burying up to 30 people per day. He turned from his disputations with the Reformed toward undivided attention to the pastoral care of his flock. Out of his desire to comfort his congregation with the sure and certain hope of eternal life in the midst of unspeakable terror and loss, Nicolai wrote FrewdenSpiegel deß ewigen Lebens (Mirror of the Joys of Eternal Life),6 a book of meditations on the last phrase of the Apostles’ Creed, “the life everlasting.” The book was formally published in 1599. In it, he appended several hymns which he had written, for the members of his congregation to sing and thus help them internalize and remember that, in spite of all that they were suffering, the joy of heaven is theirs even in the here and now. Within five years, two of these hymns, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying, LSB 516), and our seasonal hymn Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright, LSB 395), were included in a church hymnal in Hamburg. The hymns were enthusiastically received, and are now regarded as among the greatest hymns ever written in the Western Church, often referred to as the “King and Queen of the Chorales.” Of note, Nicolai’s student, the Count Wilhelm Ernst, died at the age of 14 of the plague on September 16, 1598, while studying at Tübingen. Both of these hymns function as acrostic tributes to the young protégé.7 Once the plague subsided, Nicolai resumed writing polemical works against the false Reformed teaching.
In 1601, Nicolai accepted a call to St. Catharine’s Church in Hamburg, where he preached twice a week to a full house, and became known as a, “second Chrysostom.”8 He married the widow of a colleague and cared for their son and daughter. Nicolai died on October 26, 1608, after contracting a fever. He is commemorated on that date, along with Johann Heermann (1585-1647) and Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676).
Hymn history: Nicolai wrote O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright, as, “A spiritual wedding hymn of the believing soul concerning Jesus Christ, its heavenly Bridegroom, based on the 45th Psalm of the prophet David.”9 Early on, the hymn was sung in various locations as the Chief Hymn for Epiphany 2 (Gospel text: Wedding at Cana, John 2:1-11),10 and/or Trinity 20 (Gospel text: Parable of the Wedding Feast, Matthew 22:1-14).11 It was also frequently sung at weddings.12 Additionally, the hymn was sung in Dresden as the Chief Hymn for the Feast of the Annunciation.13 Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) worked portions of the hymn into his cantatas for Advent 1 and the Feasts of the Annunciation, Ascension and Pentecost. Increasingly over the past century, the hymn has been adopted as Chief Hymn for the Feast of the Epiphany, more on this below.
Nicolai’s German hymn text consists of seven stanzas. The composite English translation in the 1941 The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH 343) includes all seven stanzas in their original order, and is placed in the Redeemer section of the hymnal. Also, of note, the TLH editors retained Nicolai’s use of the first-person singular, signifying God’s Church singing in one voice to her Bridegroom. The translation in the LSB originated with the editors of the 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW 76), brought forward to the 1982 Lutheran Worship (LW 73). This translation is also composite, and the first 3 stanzas were largely adapted from Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878). The LBW/LW omitted Nicolai’s stanza 2, and reversed the order of the final two stanzas. Additionally, the LBW editors shifted to the first-person plural. While the TLH translation is closer to the original German text, the LSB retained the six-stanza LBW/LW translation, for its poetic beauty and theological richness. The editors of the LSB, though, restored the original order of the final two stanzas. Additionally, they changed one word in the third line of the fifth stanza: “Our voices gaily blending!” (LBW/LW) to, “Our voices gladly blending!” Beginning with the LBW, the hymn has been placed in the Epiphany section of the hymnal.
The deleted stanza 2 reads as follows (TLH translation):
O highest joy by mortals won,
True Son of God and Mary’s Son,
Thou high-born King of ages!
Thou art my heart’s most beauteous Flow’r,
And Thy blest Gospel’s saving pow’r
My raptured soul engages.
Whilst Thy love in songs repeating.
Note that when centered, the stanzas of the text take on the shape of a chalice.
Hymn tune: The tune in many ways parallels that of Wake Awake, with notes 1, 3 and 5 on the scale emphasized at the beginning and throughout, and with individual melodic phrases ending on one of these notes. In TLH, the tune is presented in E-flat major, the same notes as in the transposed Ionian mode of Nicolai’s original publication. In LW and LSB, the tune is presented in the key of D major. The tune is written in the AAB “bar form” commonly used at the time. Nicolai’s tune is testimony to his skill as a musician, and the strength of the education he received in his youth.
✰ First stanza: Adoration of the Church for Her Lord (Bridegroom)
Vocabulary: fair – beautiful/attractive; grace – God’s favor, which we do not deserve; mercy – God’s not giving us the punishment we deserve; race – ancestry; holy – set apart to God, the only source of holiness (Leviticus 20:26; Romans 1:1)
Read Revelation 2:24-28, 22:16. Who is the Morning Star? Why might this hymn have been selected as Chief Hymn for the Feast of the Epiphany? Read John 1:4-5, 8:12, 14:6; 1 Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:2. Who is the One Who is the Morning Star? Along with Christmas, Epiphany came to be celebrated in the 4th century in response to the Arian heresy, namely the false teaching that Jesus was created by the Father and thus, not coeternal or of the same substance.14 How do the opening words of this hymn (indeed all of the words of the hymn) teach Christian orthodoxy about the Son? Read Isaiah 11:1-10; Jeremiah 23:5, 33:14-16; Ezekiel 37:24; Matthew 1:1, 21:9; Mark 11:10; Luke 1:32,69, 2:4, 3:31. Of whose lineage is Jesus? Read Exodus 20:3 (Deuteronomy 5:7); 2 Corinthians 5:14-15. Who only are we to serve? How is this made possible? Read Psalm 110; Philippians 2:5-11. How does Nicolai describe Jesus at the end of the stanza?
✰ Second stanza: Mystical union of the Church and her Bridegroom
Vocabulary: perplex – complicate or confuse
Read Psalm 45 (Hebrews 1:8-9); Matthew 22:1-14, 25:1-13; 2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:22-32; Revelation 19:6-10. Who is the heavenly Bridegroom? Why is He thus called? Read Isaiah 9:2; Luke 1:67-79. What change does the Bridegroom effect within our hearts? Read Genesis 2:7, 20b-24 (Matthew 19:5-6; Mark 10:7-8; 1 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 5:31)15; Romans 11:17-24 (John 15:5), 12:4-5; 1 Corinthians 12:27, 15:21-22; Ephesians 4:4, 5:29-30; Colossians 1:18, 2:19. Note also Nicolai’s original text, “that I may remain a living rib in the body of Your elect…” What are the implications of our being Christ’s body? From Whom do we receive the gift of life? Read Romans 8:18-39. How are we blessed in this fallen world?
✰ Third stanza: Bridegroom’s gifts to His Bride, the Church (Middle stanza of the original hymn)
Vocabulary: refresh – German: erquicken, give or restore life to
Read John 1:12-13; 2 Corinthians 3:18, 5:17-21; 2 Peter 1:3-4. Why is the Father pleased when the Son looks on us in love? Read Genesis 1:26, 2:7; Psalm 104:30; Isaiah 55:1-2; Matthew 4:4 (Deuteronomy 8:3; Luke 4:4), 26:26-28; John 1:4, 3:5-6; 6:27, 32-33, 63; Acts 2:38; Romans 6:3-5; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 1 Peter 3:21; and Dr. Luther’s Post-Communion Collect (LSB, top of p. 201, left hand column). What gifts does God impart to us through His Word and Sacraments (hint: Pastor’s greeting at the beginning of the DS)? Remembering that Nicolai wrote this during a time of plague, and considering that he wrote of God’s Word and Sacraments squarely in the middle of the hymn (literally in the middle of the middle stanza), of what importance were Word and Sacrament to him and to his congregation, especially during such times? Why? How important is it to you to continue receiving God’s gifts in person during such times? Read Matthew 6:19-21; Acts 3:1-10; Philippians 3:7-8; 1 Peter 1:18-19; 2 Peter 1:3-4. Who is our dearest treasure? Consider the final lines of this stanza: “Let Your mercy … You has reached us.” When do we experience our Lord’s Epiphany to us?
✰ Fourth stanza: As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever
Vocabulary: almighty – having complete power; ransom – the freeing of a prisoner in return for payment; alleluia – y’all praise the Lord
Read Matthew 13:35 (Psalm 78:2), 25:34; John 3:3-8 (note that the Greek for, “again” namely, ἄνωθεν [anothen] can be read, “from above”); Romans 16:25-26; Ephesians 1:3-14; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2; also, the Words of Institution as translated in LSB, ex. p. 197. When were we chosen by God? By what means were we ransomed? What is His salvation? Read Psalm 145:1-21; Lamentations 3:22-23. How do we praise Him in response? Read John 3:16; Hebrews 6:13-20. How certain is His promise of salvation?
✰ Fifth stanza: Praise of the Church to her Bridegroom
Vocabulary: jubilation, exultation – demonstrations of great joy
Read Exodus 15:1; 1 Chronicles 16:4-7, 25:1-7; 2 Chronicles 5:13, 7:6, 29:25-28; Nehemiah 12:27-43, 45; Psalm 33:1-5, 95:1-2, 96:1-3, 150:1-6; Ephesians 5:17-20; Colossians 3:16; Revelation 5:9-14. What medium do God’s people use in His praise, now and into eternity? Why is it important to continue this even during times of plague? Read Psalm 24:7-10; Isaiah 6:3; 1 Corinthians 2:8. Who is the King of Glory? Read Matthew 27:54; John 12:23-33. When was He glorified?
✰ Sixth stanza: Great joy, now and into eternity
Vocabulary: transport – literally: “across carry”; amen – truly; yearning – intense longing/desire
Read Matthew 5:11-12; Romans 5:3-5, 8:18, 38-39; 2 Corinthians 4:16-18; Philippians 4:4; Hebrews 10:19-25; James 1:2-4; Revelation 1:8,17, 2:8, 19:6-10, 21:1-6, 21:22-22:5, 22:13. How can Nicolai experience joy in the face of persecution for his defense of Biblical truth, in addition to a severe plague with its many attendant losses? How could the members of his congregation experience joy amidst the Unna plague? How can you experience joy in the midst of increasing persecution and COVID 19?16 Read Romans 8:19-25; Revelation 22:20. For what does Nicolai yearn? For what do you yearn? How confident are you that this will come to pass?
- Information taken from Daniel Zager, “O Morning Star, how fair and bright,” in Joseph Herl, Peter C. Reske, and Jon D. Vieker, eds. Lutheran Service Book, Companion to the Hymns, Volume 1 (St. Louis: CPH, 2019), pp. 178-181; Christopher S. Ahlman, “Philipp Nicolai,” in Joseph Herl, Peter C. Reske, and Jon D. Vieker, eds. Lutheran Service Book, Companion to the Hymns, Volume 2 (St. Louis: CPH, 2019), pp. 550-552; Arthur Carl Piepkorn, “Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608): Theologian, Mystic, Hymn Writer, Polemicist, and Missiologist: A Biobibliographical Survey,” Concordia Theological Monthly 39 (1968): 432-461; Mark A. Preus, “Teach Us to Bear Your Blessed Cross: An Essay on Philipp Nicolai’s Joy in the Face of Death,” in Ross Edward Johnson and John T. Pless, eds., The Mercy of God in the Cross of Christ: Essays on Mercy in Honor of Glenn Merritt (St. Louis: The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, 2016), pp. 299-307; and Jon Vieker, “The Fathers’ Faith, the Children’s Song: Missouri Lutheranism Encounters American Evangelicalism in its Hymnals, Hymn Writers, and Hymns, 1889-1912,” PhD diss., (Concordia Seminary, 2014) pp. 168-173.
- The Augsburg Interim was a settlement imposed on the Lutherans following their defeat by the Roman Catholic Emperor Charles V in 1548. While the Interim allowed for marriage of clergy and for the laity to continue to receive the Lord’s Supper in both kinds, it compromised justification by grace through faith, recognized the pope, the seven sacraments and transubstantiation.
- Waldeck was a county (i.e. a territory ruled by a count) of the Holy Roman Empire, comprising of lands found in present-day Hesse and Niedersachsen. Mengeringhausen was located in Waldeck.
- The Cologne War, fought from 1583-1588, was occasioned by the conversion of the Archbishop and Elector of Cologne from Roman Catholicism to Calvinism. The Duchy (i.e. territory ruled by a duke) of Westphalia was a part of the Electorate of Cologne, and thus could not escape the war. For more detail, see the entry Cologne War at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cologne_War (accessed 24 December, 2021).
- The title of Nicolai’s thesis was, “A Disputation on the Two Primary Antichrists, Muhammad and the Bishop of Rome.”
- A new English translation of the book has recently been published: Philipp Nicolai, The Joy of Eternal Life, Matthew Carver, trans. (St. Louis: CPH, 2021)
- Wachet auf/Wake Awake: stanzas begin with the letters W, Z, G, the reverse acrostic for Graf zu Waldeck (Count of Waldeck); Wie schön leuchtet/O Morning Star: stanzas begin with the letters W, E, G, V, H, Z, W, the acrostic for Wilhelm Ernst Graf vnd (und) Herr zu Waldeck (William Ernest, count and lord in Waldeck).
- John Chrysostom (c.347-407) was a Church Father known for his preaching.
- Nicolai, Joy of Eternal Life, p. 271.
- Piepkorn, “Philipp Nicolai,” p. 449.
- Günther Stiller, Johann Sebastian Bach and Liturgical Life in Leipzig (St. Louis: CPH, 1984), pp. 83, 140-141, 246. The Chief Hymn for Trinity 20 in current LCMS usage is LSB 828, We Are Called to Stand Together.
- Piepkorn, “Philipp Nicolai,” p. 449.
- Stiller, Bach and Liturgical Life, p. 239
- Peter Cobb, “The History of the Christian Year,” in Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, Edward Yarnold SJ, and Paul Bradshaw, eds. The Study of Liturgy, Revised Edition (London: SPCK and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 467.
- “In Your one body let us be, As living branches of a tree, Your life our lives supplying” is a paraphrase of Nicolai’s, “… so that I may remain in Your chosen Body a living rib.”
- Note that in his hymn, Wake Awake, Nicolai concludes the second/middle stanza with the following, “Wir folgen all zum Freudensaal, und halten mit das Abendmahl” (We follow into the hall of joy and together receive the Lord’s Supper), reminding us of the Lord’s Supper as a foretaste of the eternal heavenly banquet.